I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
After a one-week hiatus, we are back and just in time for a veritable orgy of great college hoops matchups today. Yes, there is Louisville v. Syracuse, Florida v. Missouri, Oregon v. UCLA, and Ohio State v. Michigan State. But things get no less interesting as you move down to the mid-major level, where several compelling matchups featuring conference contenders will unfold. Before we get to the Top 10, let’s take a look at what’s on tap today:
Gonzaga at Butler — The nation’s two Cinderella darlings will square off at the storied Hinkle Fieldhouse in a made-for-TV (yes, ESPN College Gameday will be in the house) contest. It will be the final game of Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule and, arguably, its toughest. The loss of Rotnei Clarke to a frightening neck injury will take some of the luster off of this matchup, as Butler will be playing without their leading scorer. The task will be no easier on the other end of the Court, as the Bulldogs will have to contend with a potent Gonzaga frontcourt, led by 7-footer Kelly Olynyk, who has emerged into a bona fide All-American candidate. But as we all know, being the underdog suits Brad Stevens just fine.
Creighton at Wichita State — Doug McDermott has wowed the nation over the past week with a pair of 30-point games, and between his dominance and Creighton’s three-point shooting, the Bluejays’ offense has become quite difficult to stop. But if there’s a team in the MVC who can do it, it’s Wichita State. The Shockers have the best defense in the league, which will have the added boost of a raucous home crowd for this premier matchup. The Shockers’ strong, quick guards will challenge Creighton at the other end, and Cleanthony Early might prove a tough matchup for McDermott. Carl Hall is also back in the lineup for the Shockers, so both teams will be at full strength.
Siyani Chambers Is Having An Outstanding Freshman Year (Anthony Nesmith/CSM/Cal Sport Media/AP Images)
Harvard at Memphis — With Conference USA muddling through a down year, this could be be Memphis’ toughest opponent of the 2013 calendar year. The Crimson have turned in a quality season despite the unexpected one-year withdrawals of senior leaders Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey due to an academic cheating scandal. Much of the credit for that goes to freshman point guard Siyani Chambers, who is fifth in the country in minutes per game. Tommy Amaker has put a great deal of faith in the young man, but he has rewarded him with a 31% assist rate, 50% three-point shooting average, and 88% FT shooting average. Chambers will lock horns with Joe Jackson, who has steadied himself this season to become a reliable scorer and team leader. The senior point guard has hit double-digits in points in 12 straight games, the longest mark of his college career.
Western Illinois at North Dakota State — North Dakota State has been one of the great underreported stories of the season, rolling up a 16-3 record and supplanting South Dakota State as the Summit League’s favorite. But Western Illinois has also creeped to the top of the league standings, just a game behind NDSU at 6-1. The Leathernecks are led by an inside-out combo of big man Terrell Parks (13.9 ppg, 9.4 rbg) and do-everything senior guard Ceola Clark. Clark is an excellent defender, and he’ll need to be at his best to help stop a North Dakota State that is a well-oiled, methodical, efficient machine. Marshall Bjorkland, the Bison’s 6-8 junior, is arguably the most efficient scorer in the country. He leads the nation in effective FG percentage (72.4%) and is fourth in true shooting percentage (71.2%).
Utah State at Denver — Louisiana Tech remains at the top of the WAC standings after holding off Idaho on Thursday night, but these two squads are just one loss behind them. So tonight’s game has a lot riding on it. Expect a low-scoring contest between two of the lowest tempo teams in the country. Royce O’Neale and Chris Udofia lead Denver’s Princeton offense, which wears down opponents with movement and relies heavily on the three-point shot. Utah State will look to Preston Medlin, who leads the team with 16.3 points per game, and center Jarred Shaw who gets lots of touches in Stew Morrill’s offense.
College of Charleston at Davidson — Charleston will have a chance to move into a tie atop the Southern Conference South standings with a win at Davidson. They’ll be led by their backcourt combo of Andrew Lawrence and Anthony Stitt, while their hosts will rely more heavily on their frontcourt tandem of De’Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen. Davidson can fall in love with the three-point shot to their detriment. They’re better when they get the ball to the versatile Brooks and Cohen. Getting the ball in the basket won’t be easy against Charleston, which has a pretty good defense anchored in the middle by Adjehi Baru.
Belmont v. Tennessee State – You would think that this game between the OVC’s two undefeated teams would lose its luster with the absence of Tennessee State’s star big man, Robert Covington, except for one thing — they’ve won every one of their six OVC games without him. Covington went down with a torn meniscus in a December 18 trip to Middle Tennessee State that the Tigers went on to lose by 38 points. At that point, they were 5-7 on the season but they’ve reeled off seven straight since and now sit atop the OVC East standings. But they may need more than the Ewing Effect when they travel across town to face off with Belmont. The switch from the A-Sun to the OVC hasn’t dimmed the Bruins’ ability to dominate their conference competition.
So there it is, a day-long feast for the glutton who craves mid-major hoops. We move on, now, to the updated Top 10 rankings, our weekly (starting this week) Honor Roll, and a few more games to keep an eye on as the week unfolds.
Tonight’s Lede.The Grind Of League Play.The non-conference season came and went. November and December whizzed by, but it gave us a solid look at who’s who in certain leagues and where various teams stand among conference challengers. Playing teams from different leagues provides a large enough sample size to draw minor conclusions on certain teams. Others are more difficult to figure out. Conference play creates order amid the uncertainty, but at the beginning – in early January – teams are still getting used to the nightly grind of top-flight competition. Some teams, accustomed to soft schedules, struggle to make the transition, so there are some wacky results during the first two or three weeks. Things even out over time, and now, with most teams having played at least three or four conference games (depending on the league), the intra-league mentality has set in. Teams are locked in for conference play. The initial adjustment period is gone; if teams are still easing their way into the conference portions of their schedules, they’re too late. Bubble watches and at-large considerations are in full effect. It’s time to bog down, meet your fellow league mates on the court and move your way up the standings.
Your Watercooler Moment. A Confirmation Of The Big Ten Pecking Order.
In a loaded Big Ten, Michigan Exists On the Mountaintop (Photo credit: Getty Images).
Last weekend’s Big Ten action – Michigan’s loss at Ohio State and Minnesota’s loss at Indiana – created an interesting proposition for two of the league’s best outfits. Neither of those losses truly shook anyone’s understanding of the Big Ten elite; Indiana, Minnesota and Michigan are all really good, close losses or not. The Gophers’ second-half surge at Assembly Hall was a convenient talking point for Thursday night’s clash at the Barn, and many afforded (rightly or wrongly) some kind of unspoken momentum advantage to Minnesota based off Saturday’s “moral victory” performance. Michigan’s weekend loss didn’t look as pretty, mostly because Ohio State hadn’t played anywhere near its capabilities to date, so the consensus – and more formally, Vegas bookies, who spotted Minnesota 2.5 points – leaned toward the Gophers, if ever so slightly. That wasn’t a misguided stance or anything, but what Michigan’s win Thursday night said more than anything else, was that the Wolverines are, at least right now, the best team in the best league. Maybe the best in the country. It’s not just the gaudy tempo-free metrics, or the flashy non-conference work. It’s John Beilein’s trademark system, slightly tweaked, readjusted and retooled with some of the best athletes and freshman talents in the country. It is the pinnacle of Big Ten hoops in 2012-13. If you haven’t seen it yet, trust me: these guys can play, man – whatever Indiana and Minnesota are, Michigan is a step above. That gap, believe it or not, really shined through at the Barn Thursday night.
Also Worth Chatting About. Texas A&M Transitivity Reflects Poorly on Kentucky.
After showing up Kentucky in Lexington, the Aggies absorbed a humbling blow from Florida at home (photo credit: AP photo).
Five days ago, Elston Turner had the game of his life. His 40 points were brilliant not only because they spearheaded Texas A&M’s upset of the defending national champions, but because of where he did it: Rupp Arena, the sanctified home of so many great UK teams, and a fan base made livid by Turner’s career day. When you beat Kentucky on the road, people take notice, no matter where Kentucky stands in the national picture, and when you took a clear look at Texas A&M’s body of work (specifically the Arkansas win that preceded the Lexington triumph), the upset wasn’t as incredulous or fraudulent as the initial shock factor may have suggested. Maybe this A&M team wasn’t all that bad… Right. Florida brought the Aggies, and Elston Turner (four points, 1-of-10 shooting), back to earth in College Station Thursday night on the strength of Erik Murphy (16 points), Patric Young (18 points) and Mike Rosario’s (19 points) efficient offense. What this game really says to me has nothing much at all to do with the Gators – we all know how balanced and scary good this team can look on both ends of the floor. It’s about the implications for Kentucky, and the fact they allowed Florida’s hapless blowout victim to embarrass the Wildcats at their unassailable home fortress. In the week since Kentucky’s loss, analysis of the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament prospects painted a gruesome portrait. Most observers are unanimous in mandating a win over Florida or Missouri for Kentucky to seal a favorable postseason fate. The transitive property, using Texas A&M as the common unit of analysis, doesn’t give Kentucky much of a chance against the Gators. Those types of chain-link conclusions typically doesn’t jibe, but hey, neither does Elston Turner scoring 40 points in Rupp Arena.
Your Quick Hits…
Horizon League Produces Favorite. It is rare that a team wins or loses a conference race over a two-game stretch. After Thursday night’s victory at Detroit Valparaiso is in position to accomplish this, with a home date against undefeated Wright State awaiting on Saturday. If the Crusaders win that game, they will have beaten their two chief league competitors in a two-day span. Without Butler, the league doesn’t have a clear favorite, but Valpo is the closest thing, and now that Detroit’s out of the way (Ray McCallum can ball), beating the Raiders at home is the only logical hurdle to a regular season title. That’s assuming Bryce Drew’s team doesn’t slip up the rest of the way – a road trip to Wright State in early February could cause problems. The bottom line is that in a pool of mediocre teams, Valpo gives the Horizon some sense of hierarchy and order.
Bruins Primed For Key Stretch. Back in the dark days of Ben Howland hot seat rumors, Josh Smith weight problems and Shabazz Muhammad ineligibility, UCLA endured a fracas of national scrutiny – not just for the off-court drama but also its inability to actually win games. The Cal Poly loss was the lowest of lows. The Bruins, of course, have long since figured things out on the court, and the locker room hearsay (Tony Parker’s attention-grabbing nonsense notwithstanding) has faded into the periphery. Winning makes things better, and UCLA – who fought off Oregon State at home Thursday night – will keep getting better if it can extend its current 10-game win streak through a crucial slate of Pac-12 competition. Over the next nine days, the Bruins will take on Oregon at home, followed by a road trip to the Arizona schools. If Ben Howland’s team can plow through that stretch unbeaten, or even with one loss, a Pac-12 championship is very much in play.
Rams Pushed To The Brink. After 40 minutes of thoroughly exhausting VCU press defense and manic perimeter harassment, St. Joe’s was spent. The Hawks couldn’t summon the energy to hang with the Rams into the overtime period, but their grinding effort served notice. It showed that the team picked to finish first in the A-10 preseason poll is no joke – that the Hawks’ 1-2 league record does not tell the entire story. Phil Martelli’s team played the two toughest games on its league schedule (home against Butler and at VCU) and lost both. If you’re going to lose games in A-10 conference play, there’s no shame in falling to the league’s top dogs. The Hawks hit a soft patch of schedule over the next couple of weeks, including games at Penn and Fordham and home against Saint Bonaventure. By the end of the month, their conference record should be more in line with what coaches and media projected before the season. The Hawks aren’t the A-10’s best, but they’re not far behind those who are.
OVC Divisional Alignment Offers Intriguing Matchups. For the first time this season, the Ohio Valley Conference has implemented eastern and western divisions to reorganize its conference schedule. With Belmont’s move into the OVC, the divisional switch couldn’t have come at a better time. The Bruins would carry the flag in the West while Murray State anchored the East for an equal balance of the league’s two best overall teams. Cross-divisional play allows Belmont a shot at the Racers (February 7), but the real intrigue lies in the West, where the Buins, Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State all entered Thursday night’s games with undefeated records. Belmont edged EKU at home (and TSU edged Jacksonville State), but because division members are guaranteed to play home-and-homes, all three of these teams will slog it out on their respective home courts over the course of the season. Thursday night was the appetizer; the next two months promise to be just as good.
What’s Happening To Illinois? No team had a more pleasantly surprising non-conference season than Illinois. John Groce’s team rolled through Maui, trounced Butler in the championship game, then pulled out a miraculous win at Gonzaga before staying neck-and-neck with Missouri for most of the Braggin’ Rights showdown in St. Louis. For a team that basically threw in the towel down the stretch last season as Bruce Weber lost his coaching touch and the Illini flailed into a 12-of-14 losing skid, Illinois looked re-energized, refocused and primed for big things in its new coach’s first season. The Big Ten season, with the exception of a blowout home win over Ohio State, has flipped the script. No longer is Illinois the product of Groce’s transformative touch. Instead, the Illini are starting to look like last season’s team. Losing to Purdue on the road is one thing. Dropping four of five conference games, three of which came at home — and one of which came to Northwestern, of all teams — is seriously disconcerting.
Dunkdafied. Of all of Michigan’s promising first-year players, Glenn Robinson III is by far the most athletic. Little Big Dog one-upped noted dunking specialist Rodney Williams in said noted dunking specialist’s own house.
Thursday Night’s All Americans.
Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan (NPOY) – When Trey Burke and Hardaway Jr. are getting out on the break, delivering pinpoint passes and knocking down perimeter shots, this is the best backcourt in the country – no holds barred. Hardaway poured in 21 points, five rebounds, two blocks and three steals to help topple the Gophers in Minneapolis.
Kevin Van Wijk, Valparaiso – If Detroit’s Nick Minnerath is going to go out and score 36 points, keeping pace is a real burden. Van Wijk fell just five points short of Minnerath’s total.
Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA – This Bruins team complements Muhammad’s individual scoring talents in tangibly beneficial ways: Kyle Anderson’s a-positional point forward play, Travis Wear’s improving post offense, Larry Drew’s conservative, turnover-averse point guard play. It’s coming together at the right time. Muhammad remains UCLA’s go-to scorer, and he posted a modest 21 points and six rebounds against Oregon State to help the Bruins prolong their winning streak, which is now at 10 Ws and counting.
Darius Theus, VCU – As long as VCU continues to bring suffocating defense, and the offense keeps shooting the ball at acceptable rates, Theus (22 points, 10 assists, four steals) and the Rams are out in front of the league title race.
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga – Anyone want to explain to me how Elias Harris, and not Olynyk, made it onto the Wooden midseason watch list? Anyway, Olynyk provided yet another reminder of why he belongs in that conversation – 21 points and eight rebounds in a win over Portland.
Tweet of the Night. Back when Eric Maynor was running the show and upsetting Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, VCU was a plucky mid from the CAA. Don’t get me wrong: VCU was the class of the CAA (with George Mason a worthy adversary), and no team welcomed the idea of dealing with Anthony Grant’s hard-nosed defensive philosophy in a tournament setting. But the program operates on a different competitive plane these days. Now the Rams are a nationally-feared program with a widely-coveted head coach. They’ve moved up the hoops food chain, made a run to the Final Four and are trending upward under Shaka Smart’s passion and recruiting acumen. Next on the agenda: winning the A-10.
The Weekend’s Lede. Embrace a New National Champion. The hustle and bustle of conference play boils down to one of two objectives: 1) scramble and fight and scrap your way into the NCAA Tournament; or, for the elite teams, 2) pile up enough evidence to be deemed worthy of a favorable draw and seed. The goal that ties those two together is reaching the championship game and, ideally, winning it. Kentucky made it look easy last season, and based on the way Calipari reloaded with another top recruiting class (albeit less heralded than the 2011 group), it was not unwise to believe he could do it again. That avenue remains open, in the crude sense that the Wildcats are still eligible for postseason competition. In actuality, the fate of their title defense season was sealed this weekend, when Kentucky allowed Texas A&M – a low-rung team in an uncharacteristically weak SEC – to deliver the Wildcats’ second home loss of the season. Given the talent at his disposal, and his experience in grooming, molding and motivating said talent, John Calipari could well propel his young team back into the national conversation. I just don’t see it. Saturday’s loss marked the unofficial retirement of UK’s faint repeat hopes. But don’t worry, next season’s rejiggered squad, anchored by what some are calling the greatest recruiting class of all time, can bring everything full circle. The championship trophy will not return to Lexington in March. That’s not official; it’s what my eyes tell me. There will be a new champion in 2013, and the weekend’s action shed more light on the race for that top prize.
Your Watercooler Moment. Number One Goes Down. (Wheelchair, Ahoy!)
The hyperbolic reviews surrounding Duke’s sterling nonconference performance were completely warranted. The Blue Devils navigated a minefield of ranked opponents, including three top five teams in a two- week span, and the conquest of an absolutely loaded Battle 4 Atlantis Field. Few teams have ever pieced together a November and December stretch with so many quality wins against so many good teams – wins that, in regard to Minnesota, VCU, Temple, Clemson and Santa Clara, are looking better and better by the week. The totality of accomplishment is almost immeasurable. The Blue Devils were thrust atop the polls and praised for their offensive efficiency. Mason Plumlee seized the early lead in the National Player Of The Year race. Seth Curry’s toughness (he has battled chronic leg pain all season) and resolve was eulogized. The outpouring of national praise almost made it feel like Duke was the only real team that mattered in the ACC. UNC had fallen off the map. NC State got tabbed with the “overrated” tag. Florida State was a sinking ship. What many seemed to conveniently forget was that the Wolfpack – the same team that (gasp!) lost to Oklahoma State on a neutral floor and at Michigan, causing large swaths of college hoops fans to write them off as a specious product of the preseason hype machine – were selected by the coaches and media in separate preseason polls to win the league outright. Those two early-season losses threw everyone off the Wolfpack bandwagon, which, come to think of it, might just be the best thing that ever happened to NC State’s season. While the nation fawned over Duke’s top-50 RPI wins and Plumlee’s double-doubles and Rasheed Sulaimon’s youthful verve, the Wolfpack were slowly, surely, methodically rounding into form. When the opportunity presented itself Saturday, as a Ryan Kelly-less Blue Devils team strolled into Raleigh, the Wolfpack did what every coach and media member predicted they’d do before the season began. They took care of the gaudy Blue Devils, and afterward, in the midst of a delirious post-game court-storming, the Wolfpack reveled in the culmination of their roller coaster season.
Also Worth Chatting About. Take Your Pick: Indiana or Michigan.
The Hoosiers’ offense didn’t miss a step in Saturday’s home win over Minnesota (Photo credit: AP Photo).
It required less than two weeks for conference competition to slay college basketball’s remaining unbeaten teams. Michigan had looked flawless in its first two Big Ten games, blowout wins over Northwestern and Iowa, generating all kinds of national championship hype along the way (the home win over Nebraska wasn’t as pretty, but it didn’t discredit the Wolverines’ glowing stature). Ohio State, meanwhile, exposed real flaws in a 19-point blowout loss at Purdue earlier in the week. Their faint hopes of pulling an upset at home against Michigan were, well, exactly that: faint. Michigan’s seeming invincibility, Ohio State’s disproportionate offense – any discussion of the Buckeyes invariably panned to a common concern over a lack of complementary scorers to supplement DeShaun Thomas – and the matchup advantages that implied, conveniently glossed over the fact that the Big Ten is a ruthless, rugged, unforgiving road, particularly when rivalries are involved. Ohio State’s victory proved, if nothing else, that the most extreme evaluations of each team to date – that Michigan is the best team in the country, and Ohio State a middle-pack-to-lower-tier Big Ten outfit – were a bit ambitious on both ends. In fact, the former trope may have been discredited before Michigan even took the floor Sunday, because Indiana, in its first real test since losing to Butler in early December, reminded everyone why the national consensus settled so firmly on the Hoosiers as the preseason number one team in the country. The final score at Assembly Hall Saturday will skew the reality of Indiana’s home toppling of Minnesota. The first half showcased an overwhelming offensive onslaught, fueled by rapid ball movement, aggressive and attentive defensive work, can’t-miss shooting aggressive and a booming home crowd. It was the epitome of Indiana’s basketball potential, bottled up into a 20-minute segment, unleashed on one of the nation’s best and most physical teams (Minnesota). An informal poll measuring the Big Ten’s best team following this weekend would favor Indiana, but I’m not so sure we can make that assumption based off two critical games. The conference season is a long and enduring grind. We’ll gather more evidence and draw that distinction later this winter. Deal?
Who Won the Week? is a regular column that will outline and discuss three winners and losers from the previous week. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), an Oregon-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game.
Mason Plumlee has led Duke in rebounding 10 times in 11 games as the Blue Devils are 11-0 while ranked third in strength of schedule. (AP Photo)
The week couldn’t have gone much more perfectly for the Blue Devils than it did. Achieve top ranking? Check. Land a top recruit? Check. Win both games handily? Check and check. Yes, Duke should probably send some flowers to Butler for knocking off preseason favorite Indiana, but who would have looked at the two teams before Saturday and thought the Hoosiers were better? Outside of the state of Indiana, I’m guessing few would. The Blue Devils (11-0) have the nation’s best body of work, and have dominated it in such a fashion that they look to be the nation’s top team convincingly, and this is before prized prospect Jabari Parker picked Mike Krzyzewski’s squad over Michigan State and BYU. On the court, Mason Plumlee, who has led Duke in rebounding 10 times so far, carried his team to an 88-47 win over Cornell with 18 points and nine rebounds Wednesday and followed that up the next night with 21 points and 15 boards in a 76-54 win over Elon. And as an added bonus, the youngest Plumlee, freshman Marshall, already made a brief return to the court against Cornell coming back from a foot injury.
(Related winners: Mason Plumlee, Butler. Related losers: Indiana, Michigan State, BYU, Cornell, Elon, and especially North Carolina – more to come.)
LOSER: Eastern Kentucky
The Ohio Valley’s Colonels started their season off hot, winning nine straight games before a weekend matchup at also-undefeated Illinois. The major-conference team expectedly pulled Eastern Kentucky apart, winning 66-53, but it was what happened next that wrapped up a bad week in Richmond, Ky. On a rare road trip to a MEAC school, the Colonels were tripped up by North Carolina A&T, who pounded the ball inside while shooting 55 percent from the field and stifling Eastern Kentucky’s guard-oriented offense by holding it to 40 percent shooting. The Bulldogs also nearly doubled up the Colonels on the glass, sealing the game. So much for a hot start.
(Related winners: North Carolina A&T, the 457 Bulldogs fans who watched the game in person. Related losers: Murray State and the Ohio Valley Conference, which both need every break they can get come March.)
Ethan Back is the Horizon League correspondent for RTC.
The Departure of Butler: It’s pretty crazy to think that the Horizon League has produced two of the last three runners-up in the NCAA Tournament, but Butler did indeed reach the final game of the season in both 2010 and 2011. The Bulldogs have been the reason why the conference receives the national attention that it does, but they are now members of the A-10. What does this mean for the conference? Wright State head coach Billy Donlon and Cleveland State head coach Gary Watersdon’t seem to think much of the departure, as the former noted that Butler finished fifth in the conference a season ago, and the latter speculated that the Bulldogs would not have been the favorites this season. Despite this, Butler’s departure has been covered extensively by the national media, and we will be able to see its effects in the seasons to come.
Will Valparaiso Dominate Conference Play? Results from the Media Day polls would seem to indicate that Valparaiso will indeed dominate the Horizon League, as the Crusaders received 40 of the possible 44 first-place votes this preseason. Valpo went 14-4 in conference last year, and returns reigning Player of the Year Ryan Broekhoff and first team all-Horizon League forward Kevin Van Wijk. Reaching the NCAA Tournament will be the goal for the Crusaders, as this was a feat they were unable to accomplish one season ago.
Will The McCallums And Detroit Step Up To Fill The Void Left By Butler? (AP)
After speaking with its former coach Bruce Weber, Southern Illinois has decided to go in a different direction and announced Barry Hinson as its new basketball coach. Hinson, who previously coached at Missouri State, had been at Kansas for the past few seasons first as an assistant then as Director of Basketball Operations. Henson signed a five-year contract that starts at $250,000 and increases to $350,000 by the fifth year. We doubt that it will ever come out, but it would not surprise us if money–the difference in salary between Weber would have commanded and what Hinson is getting–factored into the decision by Southern Illinois.
Mount Saint Mary’s introduced Jamion Christian as its new head coach earlier this week. Christian, who graduated from the school in 2004, has previously served as an assistant at four different schools and most recently at VCU. So while Shaka Smart may be staying put, at least someone from his staff is getting paid for the amazing success of that program over the past two seasons. We expect more programs to try to raid Shaka’s staff so it will be interesting to see if he can maintain his current level of success as he loses more of his coaching staff.
It appears that Tulsa may be on the verge of announcing Danny Manning as its next head coach, but the school has issued a statement claiming that nothing is final although we suspect that they are just working out the minor details of the contract based on what we have been hearing. Mississippi State does not appear to have been as successful in its coaching search so far as they were rebuffed by Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew. Drew withdrew his name from consideration yesterday and stated that he plans to stay at Valparaiso where he took over a year ago. His decision means that he will at least be the coach at Valparaiso for a longer period than his brother Scott, who left the program after one season to become the coach at Baylor.
You will not see another one of these for at least another six months so you should check out what is likely the last Luke Winn power rankings of the year. Now that we are down to four teams Luke ditches the top sixteen rankings because frankly the other twelve teams do not matter any more. Our two favorite figures from this week’s rankings are the one showing that Tyshawn Taylor may not be quite as reckless as we all have made him out to be and a surprising figure about the defenses of Kentucky and Louisville. Like always, it is one of the more informative and educational reads you will have all week.
In an under the radar conference expansion/realignment story, the West Coast Conference announced yesterday that it would be adding Pacific starting with the 2013-14 season. This addition probably does not move the needle much, but college basketball fans will remember Pacific for one of two things: (1) back-to-back first round wins in the NCAA Tournament in 2004 and 2005 when it was actually the first round and (2) being the college of Michael Olowokandi, the #1 pick in the 1998 NBA Draft. We doubt that the WCC will use Olowokandi’s image to promote the conference the way that some other conferences have used the images of players from their new member schools.
Brendon Mulvihill is an RTC contributor. You can find him @themulv on Twitter. See bottom of the post for the Official RTC Star System.
We are knee deep in Championship Week and the bigger conferences kick things off today. However, the mid-majors are fighting for their tournament lives in championship games around the country. We’ll stay focused on the smaller guys for one more day. What an amazing time of year!
Pennsylvania at Princeton – 7:00 PM EST on ESPN3 (****)
Penn needs to win one more to face Harvard in a winner take all playoff game (credit: Meghan Cadet / Daily Pennsylvanian)
If Penn can pick up a road win tonight, they will force a one game playoff with Harvard to determine the Ivy League champion and who will get the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. To say this game is a must-win for the Quakers is an understatement. Penn knocked off Princeton at the end of January with an 82-67 win at home. While both teams shot over 60% eFG for the night, the Quakers dominated the offensive glass and the free throw line. They posted their highest offensive rebounding rate and highest free throw rate of the season. It turns out that Penn has one of the worst OR% rates (#299) and one of the worst free throw rates (#303) in the country. Inconceivably, Princeton is worse in both categories, coming in at #313 and #304, respectively, so the Quakers took advantage. Keep a close eye on Penn’s ability to get to the line, as it will play a huge factor in their ability to win one on the road.
Princeton has shot the ball 41% from downtown in conference play, ranking first in that category in the conference. Watch to see if the Tigers can pick up some timely threes against the top three-point defense in the Ivy League. Princeton is no slouch on defense either. They have been able to hold teams to 45.5% eFG in league play. However, they must play good defense without fouling, which they struggle to do. Princeton is 3-10 when their opponents have a free throw rate above 36%.
This game will be won at the free throw line. While it’s a little more complicated than that, watch the foul situation closely. The Tigers have the field goal defense to slow down the Quakers. However, if they are putting Penn on the line because they are fouling on second chance opportunities, they will lose like they did in the first game, and we’ll be treated with another Ivy League playoff game with a bid on the line later this week.
Horizon League Championship: Detroit at Valparaiso – 9:00PM EST on ESPN (****)
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on twitter @IRenkoHoops.
Ah, the sweet smell of February Madness in the air. Who says we need to wait until March to start cracking open the brackets? Six TO26 conferences kick things off in February: the Big South (2/27), Horizon (2/28), A-Sun (2/29), Ohio Valley (2/29), Patriot (2/29), and West Coast (2/29). And several other conferences will kick things off just as soon as the calendar turns, including the MVC in what’s sure to be another great iteration of Arch Madness. No automatic bids will be awarded until March 3 (though Harvard is in position to clinch the Ivy bid as early as March 2), but with a number of top 15 TO26 teams with at-large aspirations kicking off tournament play next week (Wichita State, Murray State, Creighton, St. Mary’s, Gonzaga, BYU), there are heavy implications for the nationwide Bubble. Speaking of the top 15 …
Looking Forward: What to Watch
In addition to the conference tournaments that kick off over the next week, here are a few regularly-scheduled games to keep your eye on:
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We normally only link to written content in our Morning Five, but we will make an exception for Scott Van Pelt’s rant on the RPI. We are not exactly sure what triggered this response (time of the year or the spirited defense of the RPI from Seth Davis that we linked to yesterday). While we agree with his general premise that the RPI is a deeply flawed system the more important point that he mentions in passing is that none of these ranking systems are perfect and should be used in conjunction with other methods of evaluation including your eyes, a method that Van Pelt stresses. To be perfectly honest, we are getting a little tired of all the debate on how dumb (or great, in the case of Davis) the RPI is. The NCAA either needs to provide a handful of the most respected metrics including the RPI for historical reasons, or it can get committee members who are willing to look beyond just the prepared handouts and data that they are given.
What’s that? Another story on the RPI? We are only linking to this because it is such a good piece. John Gasaway’s history of the RPI is probably the most scholarly piece on the RPI you will read. Not only does Gasaway go into the origins of the RPI, which very few college basketball fans are aware of, but he also discusses the reasons for its continued existence and relevance. While most articles on the RPI are distorted by the author trying to make a case for or against (mostly against), Gasaway provides a balanced and rational look at the system with its strengths and flaws.
After a few months of questions about whether or not the Xavier-Cincinnati series would survive this season’s brawl, it appears that the rivalry will continue. Although the decision will not officially be made until next month all signs indicate that the teams will continue to meet on an annual basis. Next season’s game will certainly be scrutinized by the national media (both sports and general) and we are certain that the build-up before the game will be over the top (hello, page views!), but we are glad that the officials at two schools are not letting one incident albeit a rather large one that turned into a series of incidents end one of the best rivalries in college sports.
We are breaking all sort of unwritten rules on the Morning Five today as we are going to link to a writer for the second time today because of all the statistical nuggets in John Gasaway’s “Tuesday Truths” column. The basis, which we have discussed before, is rather simple, but Gasaway manages to make some insightful analysis. The number that blew us away the most was just how dominant Kentucky has been this year, but he also provides an interesting theory on why many Horizon League teams might want Valparaiso to win the regular season title.
And now for the most controversial link in our Morning Five and what is sure to lead to a follow-up post in the near future. The four writers at CBS put together lists of the 16 greatest college basketball teams of all-time. The rankings are part of a tie-in to a multiple episode show on CBS Sports Network (corporate synergy!) and although many of the same teams appear there are quite a few differences. Quite a few things stood out to us, which we will hopefully get to address in a post in the near future, but let’s just say there may be a Poll Attack coming.
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on twitter @IRenkoHoops.
The mid-major hoops feast that is Bracketbuster weekend has arrived. It kicked off Friday night with VCU defeating Northern Iowa and Loyola Marymount following up their upset of St. Mary’s with a win over Horizon League leader Valparaiso. We previewed all of the televised Bracketbuster matchups when they were released, so we won’t rehash all the here. But we do regret that that the two biggest games on the schedule — Murray State v. St. Mary’s and Creighton v. Long Beach State — have lost a bit of their luster. The Racers saw their undefeated run end in less-than-gallant fashion, with a loss at home to Tennessee State, while the Gaels have dropped 2 of their last 3 games by a combined 29 points. Meanwhile, Creighton’s recent three-game skid, punctuated by a huge loss to Wichita State, has taken some of the sheen off of their otherwise stellar season. Still, these are all teams likely headed for the Big Dance, and today’s big games will give them a chance to re-ignite their season and build some momentum as they head towards March.
After the updated top 15, we recap five big games from the week that was, including a dramatic buzzer-beater. We also take a look at four tumultuous conference races and the two big non-Bracketbuster games to keep an eye on this week.
Looking Back: Five Key Results
George Mason 62, VCU 61 — This was a big game between two of the CAA’s three conference co-leaders, and it didn’t disappoint. Sherrod Wright won the game on a dramatic three-point buzzer beater. (See it for yourself, many times over, below.) The broader keys to Mason’s win were the two things that have sustained them all year — defense and forward Ryan Pearson. The Patriots held VCU to under 40% FG shooting, and Pearson led the team with 24 points and 11 rebounds.
Loyola Marymount 75, St. Mary’s 60 — Down 35-34 early in the second half, LMU went on a 13-2 run and never looked back, stunning the first-place Gaels with a 15-point defeat on their home floor. How did LMU pull off the upset? First, they managed to get to the line 27 times against a team that doesn’t usually give their opponent that many free throw attempts. Second, they contained St. Mary’s starting backcourt, holding Matthew Dellavedova, Jorden Page, and Stephen Holt to a combined 5-19 shooting, including a miserable 0-9 from three-point range. Read the rest of this entry »
I. Renko is an RTC columnist. You can normally find him kicking off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on twitter @IRenkoHoops.
In this special mid-week edition of The Other 26, we take a look at all of the premier (read: televised) Bracketbuster matchups that were announced on Monday and offer a guide to the uninitiated on what to watch for. The annual mid-major hoops feast typically offers a host of compelling contests, and this year is no different. In roughly descending order of interest/excitement:
Main Event — St. Mary’s at Murray State (2/18, 6 PM, ESPN or ESPN2) — I was hoping we would get a double main event with St. Mary’s at Creighton and Wichita State at Murray State. Perhaps the Bracketbuster selection committee didn’t rate Wichita State that highly or was intent on giving the undefeated Racers a ranked opponent against whom they could prove their quality. So they sent top 20, 21-2 St. Mary’s to Murray, Kentucky, to set up the undisputed headliner of this year’s Bracketbuster event. Murray State will have a clear advantage from playing at home, but apart from that, this looks like a very close matchup. Offensively, both teams rely heavily on the two lines — the three-point line and the free throw line. Defensively, both teams are pretty good at not giving up many attempts from either of those lines, with the notable exception of Murray State’s tendency to foul too much. Both teams are also somewhat turnover prone, but only the Racers play the kind of defense that is likely to exploit such a weakness. Finally, the Gaels may look to get easy points off of the offensive glass, as defensive rebounding is a liability for Murray State. Which, if any, of these games within the game will determine the outcome? Only one way to find out: tune in at 6 PM on February 18.
Can St. Mary's End Murray State's Undefeated Season?
Battle of the Supporting Casts — Long Beach State at Creighton (2/18, 10 PM, ESPN2) – Most eyeballs will be trained to watch Casper Ware and Doug McDermott, two of mid-major hoops’ most recognizable players. But I hope that fans will also tune in to get a glimpse of the extent to which these conference-leading teams depends on their supporting casts. LBSU has three other players who average in double figures — Larry Anderson (who also stuffs the stat sheet with 5.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, while shooting 44% from three-point range), T.J. Robinson (who adds 10.2 rebounds a game), and James Ennis. Creighton, meanwhile, has discovered that they can be just as potent, maybe even moreso, when McDermott scores less than 20 a game. Antoine Young’s dribble penetration, Greg Echinique’s inside banging, and the marksmanship of Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat make the Bluejays a much more multi-dimensional team than they’re often portrayed to be. It’s worth noting, too, that each of these teams will be trying to bolster their at-large bona fides in the event that they don’t win their conference tournaments — an especially distinct possibility for Creighton, who will have to get through three games in the always tough MVC to cinch an auto bid.
Deepak Jayanti is the RTC correspondent for the Horizon League. Follow him on Twitter (@10thYearSeniors) for his thoughts on college basketball.
Don’t Bet On It: Parity has been a common term used to describe certain conference races such as the Big Ten, CAA or Pac-12 so far this season. Add the Horizon League to that list after the games this past weekend. Cleveland State and a surprising Valparaiso team sit on top of the standings at the halfway point of conference play. Fans of this league with a gambling itch might want to stay away because there are three teams (Butler, Milwaukee and Youngstown State) right up there, only a game behind the leaders in the standings. Milwaukee and Cleveland State were expected to be the front-runners but few expected Valpo and Youngstown to challenge them for the title. There is only one aspect of this conference that is certain at the halfway point – unpredictability.
International Love: No, this is not a reference to the Pitbull/Chris Brown song that is overplayed on the radio nowadays. But Bryce Drew has two great foreign-born players that form an efficient inside-outside tandem. One of the lingering questions about the Crusaders before the season started was around a reliable second scoring option outside of Ryan Broekhoff (Australia). Kevin Van Wijk (Netherlands) is averaging 16.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game as he compliments Broekhoff’s outside game by patrolling the paint without attempting a single three-point shot all season. Drew must be paying close attention to the shooting form of his players because the Crusaders are shooting a league best 58% inside the arc. They aren’t stacked with three-point gunners but their offensive sets are designed to maximize the player’s strengths, hence less reliant on the long-range shot.
Senior Backcourt Leads the Way: Cleveland State is fortunate to have three seniors controlling the game during key stretches. The three Vikings – Trevon Harmon (12.1 PPG), D’Aundray Brown (11.6 PPG) and Jeremy Montgomery (10.7 PPG) provide a great foundation along with a balanced scoring attack. Gary Waters’ guards have already proved that they can win at tough venues on the road – Vanderbilt, Kent State and Butler. Their experience and composure might just be enough to win pivotal games such as the one this past weekend when they steamrolled through Milwaukee at home, 83-57. They do more than just score – the Three Amigos also limited each of Milwaukee’s guards to single digit scoring on Sunday.
The Talented Trevon Harmon Headlines A Tremendous Backcourt
D in Detroit doesn’t stand for Defense: All of the offensive talent means nothing if you can’t (or won’t) defend. Sure, everybody around the league is well aware of the potential NBA players on the Titans’ squad – Ray McCallum Jr. (15.2 PPG, 4.7 APG) and Eli Holman (11 PPG, 6.6 RPG). Without a consistent defensive effort, though, they have no chance at contending for the conference title. Detroit ranks last in defensive field goal percentage across the Horizon and are giving up about one point per possession* to their opponents during conference action. They will continue to lose key games against the top squads with their lackadaisical defense – for example, they gave up 84 points to Milwaukee, which is a team that only averages about 63.6 points per game. (*All tempo free statistics are courtesy of kenpom.com)
Disney on ice: Huh? That’s not a typo. This event could impact where the conference tournament is held. If the teams continue to beat up on each other, the overall record of the top teams won’t be enticing enough for the NCAA committee to consider selecting two teams for the Big Dance. So despite the regular season outcome, the conference tournament’s result might easily drive the decision on Selection Sunday. If Milwaukee ends up winning the regular season (only one game behind first place), they will not be able to host the first two rounds of the conference tournament because Disney On Ice has already booked the U.S. Cellular arena from March 1-4. Now, this will only impact Milwaukee negatively IF they win the regular season title because in such a case, the tournament will be held on the home court of the second place team from the regular season. Based on the parity of the league so far, a home court advantage might be extremely crucial during the conference tourney so the Panthers fans won’t be too happy come early March if they are forced to play on the road.
Cleveland State (7-2, 17-4) – In addition to an experienced backcourt, the Vikings can pull their weight in the paint. They lead the league in grabbing offensive rebounds. They clean the offensive glass at a league best 36.6%. Most of this is due to the upcoming freshman Anton Grady who grabs about 5.4 rebounds per game. Another senior forward, Aaron Pogue adds to the mix as he averages 4.1 boards per game. A balanced scoring attack combined with experience means that the Vikings are well positioned to take the conference title.
Valparaiso (7-2, 14-7) – Well-coached players know their strengths. The Crusaders’ shot selection during their recent stretch exemplifies Drew’s coaching abilities. This team won’t shoot lights out like their former coach but have been running most of the plays through the paint. Capitalizing on Van Wijk’s post game is the best strategy because it opens up the outside shot for Broekhoff towards the end of the games. Van Wijk is very savvy with his moves in the paint and has a fairly high free throw rate of 83.6 this season. Read the rest of this entry »